In August 1799, Napoleon returned to France from an ill-fated imperial adventure in Egypt, leaving behind a demoralized force headed by Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the Revolutionary hero shortly to be assassinated in Cairo. “L’oiseau était déniché” was how the disappointed Kleber described Napoleon’s departure: The bird had flown the coop.
In France, Napoleon touted the campaign as a triumph despite the late debacles at Acre and in Aboukir Bay, where not only lives but also the expedition’s greatest prize, the Rosetta Stone, were lost. Back home in France, his propaganda touched off a wave of popular enthusiasm for all things Egyptian. This “Egyptomania” was additionally fueled by the publication of compelling eye-witness travelers’ accounts, such as the artist Vivant Denon’s illustrated Voyage dans la basse et la haute Egypte.
These immensely popular publications provided rich sources of imagery for fine and decorative artists. Wallpapers featuring Egyptian motifs, furniture carved with Egyptian emblems, and variations on themes from Egyptian architecture (including the 1806 peristyle of the Hôtel de Beauharnais in Paris) flooded French homes and buildings.
Perhaps the strangest—certainly the most fragile—of these artifacts was the “Egyptian Service,” a 115-piece, Egyptian-themed porcelain dinner service commissioned from the Sèvres porcelain factory by Napoleon in 1804. Using Denon’s and others’ drawings as inspiration, the designs were produced by one Lepére, an architect who had served on Napoleon’s expedition. (Denon’s drawings were also featured on the set’s seventy-two plates, including one that bore the image of the Dendera zodiac, the central subject of our book.) Most magnificent of all, the set included porcelain models of the temples of Dendera, Edfou, and Philae, as well as the colossi of Memnon, and even a colonnade of rams leading to a replica of the temple at Luxor (ancient Thebes).
Despite the difficulty of fabricating these objects, and despite Napoleon’s exigent demand that the result be “of the first, not the second order,” the Sèvres company was pressured to work quickly, lest they lose the imperial imprimatur and with it, their position as Europe’s premier porcelain manufacturer. An initial set of plates, decorated in rich blue and gold, appeared in relatively short order at the end of 1805.
The first complete service, including the magnificent replica temples, was produced in 1808, and sent by Napoleon to Czar Alexander as a gift; it is today exhibited at the Kuskowo ceramics museum in Moscow. Napoleon ordered a second set as a divorce gift to Josephine, who rejected it as too severe for her taste. It was later given to the Duke of Wellington, and it can be seen today at his residence, Apsley House, in London.